October 28, 2014

The University of Iowa College of Law hopes to offer a master’s degree in legal studies starting in 2015, said law school dean Gail Agrawal during a recent stop in Carroll.

Originally prompted by the increasingly regulated health-care environment, the one-year program would provide basic legal training to individuals in a variety of careers ranging from nonprofit management to human relations.

“We have realized that legal training is important for a lot of people who are not lawyers,” Agrawal said. “A one-year master’s degree in legal studies will provide a useful context to how law interacts with other fields.”

The training would benefit professionals across the state and beyond — whether, for example, a director of a large charity organization in a city or leader of a nonprofit chapter in a small town, she added.

Prospective lawyers need not worry that this program will cut into their own opportunities, Agrawal said.

In 2013, the University of Iowa was ranked 14th in the country for placing law students in full-time, long-term jobs. Immigration law and intellectual-property law in particular are areas in which the law is still evolving, she said.

There are also many opportunities in small towns across Iowa, primarily due to the aging of attorneys in Iowa’s rural counties. The Iowa State Bar Association Rural Practice Committee works to place first-year law students in clerkships with small-town law firms.

Dave Bruner, partner at Bruner, Bruner, Reinhart & Wunschel LLP in Carroll, said he is very interested in drawing law students back to practice in rural Iowa.

“I think a legal education is an awesome education whether you practice law or not,” he said, acknowledging the benefit of the proposed master’s degree in legal studies.

But in Carroll and some surrounding counties, the majority of attorneys are older than 50, he said. Many of those attorneys are looking for someone to carry on the work of their firms — rural residents like to deal with a lawyer who is local, he said.

“I think a lot of it has to do with trust,” he said. “And there is, especially in small-town Iowa, a loyalty.”

Lawyers in a rural practice do a little bit of everything — real estate is a “mainstay” and estate planning, trusts and probate matters are the “bread and butter” of the work, but there is also room to dabble in other areas, such as domestic-relations work.

The desire of small-town lawyers to keep their firms in local hands has helped Bruner’s firm expand its own coverage area — its northern and southern anchors are fully staffed offices in Carroll and Guthrie Center, with satellite offices in Coon Rapids and Bayard. The firm also represents several cities and towns in the Carroll and Guthrie areas.

In the last two to three years, the firm has had conversations with numerous attorneys who are looking to retire, Bruner said.

“There is definitely opportunity” in rural law, he said.